Posts Tagged ‘Jonah and the Whale’

The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 3)

March 8, 2015

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”  Jonah 3:1

Even those who know almost nothing of the Bible will generally follow “Jonah” with “and the Whale.”  In fact, however, the “whale” is something of an intrusion.  The story works just fine if you start with Chapter 3, with only a little editing.  It doesn’t matter whether it was a “whale” or a “big fish” or even “the belly of Sheol.”  In fact, the central message of the Book of Jonah doesn’t require the first two chapters at all.  That is why I say that while in one sense “the whale” is inseparable from Jonah, in another sense it is quite unessential.  What follows after that story is what changes an apparent fairy tale into what my father now says is the most important book in the Old Testament.

Jonah now travels to Nineveh.  “That great city” is described as being so huge that it would take three days to walk across it.  Jonah doesn’t bother trying to reach the heart of the city, much less the entire city.  He walks about a day in, enough to fulfill the letter of the command, and proclaims to the city, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!”  Strangely, he is not arrested as an enemy national come to undermine the morale of the city, nor is he mocked as a lunatic. Instead, his somewhat incomplete effort is wildly successful.  Interestingly, the text in the NRSV says “the people of Nineveh believed God.” (Jonah 3;5).  The Hebrew name for their deity is transliterated YHWH, and usually translated into English as “LORD,” all caps.  “Elohim,” usually translated “God” or “gods”, can refer either to the Israelite deity who spoke to Moses, or to any god.  It is a less definite title as compared to the true name of God, YHWH, that name so holy Jews do not even speak it aloud.  The implication is that the Ninevites hear Jonah not as the prophet of the god of Israel only, but as a prophet of God, The God, whose power and justice rule the whole world.  And they react with sincere and even extravagant repentance.  The people first, and then even the king put on sackcloth and ashes, the traditional signs of mourning, they fast, and they even put sackcloth on the animals to show that every living thing in the city is submitting to the will of God; and more importantly, the king proclaims that all are to give up their evil and violent ways, so that this ritual act of repentance is accompanied by genuine reformation.  Jonah is one of the most successful prophets in the entire Bible!  “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”  (Jonah 4:1)

Rarely does the Bible record such a success as Jonah’s, and even more rarely does it report a prophet so displeased with his success.  Jonah had wanted Nineveh’s destruction all along.  He never wanted it to repent; he wanted to be rejected so that the LORD’s wrath would fall on the city as he had predicted.  Instead, the city repents, and God relents.  And Jonah prays bitterly, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.  And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  (Jonah 4:2-3)  And Jonah stomps out of the city, and makes camp outside it to wait and see what the LORD will finally do, and whether he will in fact spare the city or not, still hoping for Nineveh’s destruction.

Instead, “The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.  But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. ”  (Jonah 4:6-7)  It really doesn’t seem to take much to please or displease some people!  God sends a shade bush to Jonah and he is delighted again.  The next day the bush dies, and God makes sure it is a particularly hot day just so Jonah gets the point.  Soon Jonah is angry and miserable again, praying for death.  And God responds to Jonah, saying:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?  (Jonah 4:11)

That is where the book ends.  We have no word whether Jonah had a reply at all.  The book ends with a question for Jonah, and for us:  shouldn’t God be merciful even to the rotten, who are so ignorant they don’t know right from wrong?  Shouldn’t God even be merciful to our enemies?

This is why my father says Jonah is the most important book in the Old Testament.  There are individual psalms and passages that speak of the love of God for all people, but Jonah is the book that is dedicated to the message that God loves everyone.  God even loves Assyrians.  God even loves their animals!  When he preaches his sermon, he intends to end it by saying, “God loves you!  And you!  And you!  And even me!”  And then, if possible, he’d like to end with the congregation singing this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUZEtVbJT5c   (minus whatever commercial YouTube shows you before the clip, of course!).

The Sign of Jonah: lessons from my father (pt. 2)

March 4, 2015

In one sense, you cannot talk about Jonah without talking about The Whale.  In another and truer sense, you should only talk about Jonah without The Whale.

First, as William Jennings Bryant pointed out at the Scopes trial, the Bible does not say “whale;” it says “a big fish.”  This is similar to the process that led to Eve’s Apple; the Bible never says there was an apple and there couldn’t have been given the location of Eden in the Fertile Crescent, but early missionaries explaining the Bible to pagans and new converts pointed to the fruit they people knew to illustrate the story.  Pre-modern people in general are unlikely to try to classify whales as “mammals;” they live in the ocean and that makes them fish.  (Though if I’m reading Lev. 11:9-12 correctly, whales are not kosher, as true fish would be.)  Textually, then, there is no reason to think Jonah was “swallowed by a whale.”

Second, this seems to be a stumbling-block for many readers, including my father at one point.  He read the Bible from cover to cover, and for 65 years thought of Jonah as a fairy tale with no value, an intrusion into the ranks of the prophets.  And that is a shame, for as we shall see this book actually has a lot to say today.

Nevertheless, my father has flipped on this issue; now he thinks it did happen, that it was a whale, and that the story has scientific validity.  If a baleen whale had accidentally swallowed Jonah, he would have become lodged in its throat.  In that case, choking, it might well have stayed near the surface and eventually beached itself.  And unlike humans, most animals can breath with something stuck in their throats, so this might have lasted long enough to carry him to shore.  I’m struck most by the fact that Dad feels a need to argue this point.  I attribute it to whatever overwhelming experience he had that leads him to say God spoke to him and told him to preach about Jonah.  He says, “I now know that every word in the Bible is true,” and asserting every word is true is part of his new sense that the message and promise as a whole are true.  But at the same time, sometimes in almost the same breath, he says it doesn’t matter whether it was a whale or something else.

Jonah ran exactly away from Nineveh until he came to the ocean, and then got on a boat headed as far west as possible. He then fell asleep in the hold of the ship, feeling safe from the presence of God.  In the meantime, though, the boat was struck by a violent storm and the crew feared it was sinking.  Almost comically, Jonah slept through it all until the captain ordered all hands on deck, praying to their gods if they couldn’t do anything else.  And as ancient people often do, the sailors resorted to auguries to find what divine or infernal force was seeking their destruction; and the lot fell on Jonah.  He realized the gig was up, and told them he was to blame, he was a prophet of the LORD (or YHWH for you Hebrew purists) and he was fleeing; and he told them that if they wanted to be safe, they had to throw him overboard.  They resisted this coldhearted advice at risk of their own lives; but finally, seeing no other way, they followed the prophet’s direction.

But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.    Jonah 1:17

The “large fish” is an interesting symbol at this point.  We often think of this as a punishment.  Actually, though, it is a blessing.  YHWH could have let Jonah drown; instead, the fish saves his life.  At the same time, it is a manifestation of the power of YHWH.  Jonah has tried to “flee the presence of the LORD,” and God has physically grabbed him and is hauling him back.  At different times, my father has spoken differently about “the belly of the whale.”  Shortly after the accident, he compared his experience to being “in the belly of the whale.”  He was only trapped in his car for an hour, not for three days; but more generally, he felt he was at Death’s door from the moment his car went off the road until the time he came out of his second surgery alive.  Coming back seemed to him like what Jonah must have felt when the whale spit him out on dry land.  Other times, though, he has seen the whale as a warning; you can run from God, but God has ways to reel you back.  He is in a hurry now to get out and preach as he was commanded, because “I don’t want to end up in the belly of a whale.”

On the other hand, though, he also says that whether it was a whale or a fish or whatever happened to Jonah, none of that matters.  The real message of Jonah is something else, something much, much bigger than any whale.  The really important part lies in the very first verse:  the LORD told Jonah to go to Nineveh, that wicked city, that enemy city, and to call it to repentance.

I think the question of The Whale matters so much to my father because he has always been self-reliant, even in religion.  He has wanted to judge what was true and false by his rational standards, and that doesn’t work well with Jonah.  For him, this is an exercise in humility, in letting the spiritual present itself to him without having to first hand its resumé to Reason to be allowed admission.  He choked on the whale for 65 years.  I don’t fully understand why we keep discussing the whale, but I do understand that Truth presents itself to one who is receptive and open to it, and not to one who seeks to judge it because it comes dressed as a fairy tale or a fish story.

But for myself, I am intrigued by what we find afterwards.  Chapter 2 of Jonah is a psalm, poetry, presented as a prayer offered by Jonah while in the belly of the fish:

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 
3 You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 
4 Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ 
5 The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head 
6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.
Jonah 2:2-6
The prayer does not actually fit Jonah’s situation.  Clearly it was composed earlier; even a biblical literalist would admit that Jonah appears to be reciting a psalm appropriate to his situation, though not exactly the same.  After all, where do “the roots of the mountains” come in?  In seminary, they would probably have explained this as evidence that the writer of the book of Jonah had written a psalm and inserted it here, or perhaps a later scribe added it, or something like that. Again, that doesn’t matter, unless it helps in finding the meaning.  What does seem to matter is that here Jonah is not in the belly of a “large fish;” he is in “the belly of Sheol.”  He is dead, or as good as dead, and calls to God, and is rescued.  “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the LORD!”  Jonah 2:9
And that quite literally fits my father’s life.  He was in the belly of Sheol, and he had an experience that he can only describe as “God spoke to me.”  That experience left him with a sense of obligation, and now he is determined to fulfill that obligation out of gratitude and joy at still being alive.
To be continued